The characters in Pigeon Soup & Other Stories are navigating relationships and grappling with issues of translocation, language and identity, religion and culture, and food. These tales portray the dark places they inhabit physically, emotionally, or metaphorically, with twists that sometimes provide a flicker—or even a bright beam—of hope.
“Rosanna Micelotta Battigelli’s stories interweave themes and recurring characters into a marvelous tapestry of cultural expression and cultural dissonance. She negotiates these byways with warmth, insight, and a true mastery of narrative ellipsis. Although she never flinches from darkness and tragedy, the generosity of spirit in this work will, for the reader, act like a balm for a troubled age.”
—Paul Butler, author of Mina’s Child and The Widow’s Fire
“These stories have an intriguing and child-like gaze that also turn a spotlight into some very dark corners— high-school bullying, sexual abuse, and childhood trauma. Notwithstanding the bones in the broth that threaten to choke, this collection is pigeon soup for the soul that rewards its reader. It may be the wonderment, the ultimate resilience or pushback of some of its characters. Whatever the ingredients, hats off to a brave Rosanna Micelotta Battigelli for making us Pigeon Soup.”
—Darlene Madott, award-winning author of Making Olives and Other Family Secrets
“Reading Pigeon Soup is like being spirited into a chiaroscuro small town, receiving a gift of sight that reveals all hidden shames and unseen heroism. Rosanna Micelotta Battigelli sees into the heart of a fraught and beautiful heritage, and draws the reader in with great love to enjoy the aching, funny, proud, devastating, and delicious experience of being Italian American.”
—Donna Lee Miele, contributing writer, VIA: Voices in Italian Americana
“An exquisitely crafted, engaging and lively collection of novelle, Pigeon Soup & Other Stories, similarly to the sumptuous Mediterranean dishes seductively garnishing its pages, serves us a reading to be savoured, much like anything that is fine in life. Woven into a realist framework of old-country customs and new-world expectations, the narrative’s interlacing strands of solid plot, sound psychological character study, and language and identity issues deploy an intense literary glow that caresses our sensibilities. Refreshingly innovative, too, the other side of the coin: the stories are not exclusive to one culture. And so, having enjoyed Nonna’s “comforting bowl” of free-run unadulterated pigeon soup we find ourselves invited across the street (that is, across the page) to a “delicious bowl of Lipton’s chicken soup.” Ah, the joys of a pleasurable text, as Barthes would say.”
—Gabriel Niccoli, Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo. editor of Ricordi: Racconti di vite oltreoceano and Patterns of Nostos in Italian Canadian Narratives
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Your mother sometimes scolded her mother, your nonna, for telling you old-fashioned stories from the old country. She would tell you tales of zingari and u babau, gypsies and the boogeyman, who would gleefully snatch you if you wandered too far or disobeyed your parents, and then raise you as their own. As a preschooler, you became terrified at the slightest indication of your parents’ escalating anger, even if it had nothing to do with you. Somehow, their raised voices, hands attacking the air, faces puckered in frowns or eyes hardened in accusation, made you believe it was something you said or did that had caused their ire, and you always sought a safe haven in the arms of your nonna.
Nonna would provide you with a comforting bowl of broth, or a panino streaked with giardiniera and stuffed with mortadella and provolone, while telling you stories that she had grown up with. Her tales simultaneously entertained and frightened you, making the hair on your arms stand up. But strangely enough, you always begged her for “one more story.” It was almost as if you had this insatiable hunger for tales of wicked children being entranced by bejewelled gypsies, who would lure them into bright caravans filled with other captives and lead them far away from their homes. Or of a big hulking boogeyman hovering in the shadows, waiting to terrorize a child.
One of the stories you kept asking for was the one about il falco, the Hawk. Your nonna would get a gleam in her eye, set you in her lap, and wrap her black shawl around you both before lowering her voice to almost a whisper.
The Hawk was the size of a man, she said. A hulk of a creature that heralded ill luck or even, at the very worst, a death in her village in the old country. It was both feared and admired. Feared for its craftiness, its stealth, its predatory instincts. Admired for its effortless grace while gliding, its regal bearing in stillness, the immensity of its wingspan. It came out at night, hovering over rooftops, its curved claws scratching the shingles of the dwelling it chose to rest upon. The occupants, trembling at the implication of its arrival, would venture quietly outside to catch a glimpse of the Hawk. They found themselves struck speechless at the creature in the moonlight, its sleek wings draped around it like a signora’s fashionable cape.
When you were nine, you heard your last story from your nonna, who passed quietly in the night. The days, weeks, and months afterwards are still foggy to you, but the stories she told you never faded in your memory. They came to you when you least expected them, like a hawk in the night.
Then, one night, you caught sight of it.
You saw it swoop across your bedroom window, and in your pajamas, you tiptoed across the linoleum floor and went outside for a better look.
For a moment you felt awe as you stared at its statue-like form, but when you took in a breath, it swivelled its head to pierce you with a gaze icier than death. It saw you there in your yard, near an oak tree behind which you had instinctively sequestered yourself. You didn’t hesitate to see what it would do; you had no intention of being attacked by that menacing creature. You imagined its sickle of a beak slicing into your eyes, as it had apparently done to a cocky observer in Nonna’s village. No, you didn’t wait for its claws to disengage from the time-weathered shingles, sending some of them clattering to the ground, before priming itself for flight, directly toward you.
Horror-stricken—you had recently seen Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds at a friend’s house—you willed your body into motion. The expanse of lawn between the back door and the oak tree that protected you seemed a mile long now, with that black hulk in the air, batting its glistening wings. You willed your leaden feet to lift, to propel you to the safety of the porch, but the warrior cry it emitted flew inside the cavity of your chest, chilling your heart and the blood in your veins. You feared for your life, then; you wished you could take back your brazen belief that you could share space with the Hawk and not pay the price.
You should have stayed inside, you berated yourself, and a crazy notion followed that if you made a dash for it, your hands over your eyes, you might have a chance. Half a chance. Your heart began to thump so loud you feared you were having a coronary. Without warning, an involuntary scream ripped out of your throat as you lifted your trunk-like feet and attempted to reach the porch door before the Hawk’s claws descended upon your back, raking into your thin pajama top and lifting you upward like a flailing mouse or a trembling hare.
That was when the porch light came on and your mother, seeing you panting on the floor, didn’t know whether to scold or hug you, such was the look of sheer fright stamped on your face. You had no words at first, and you just pointed with trembling fingers. Frowning, she opened the creaking door, looked out and up toward the moonlight, sighed, and came back in. By this time, your breathing had calmed and you had gotten yourself off the floor, but you still felt a quiver in your limbs.
Your mother led you back to your bedroom, made you sit and drink some water. You sputtered a bit, then the words flew out, your voice hoarse. “It was the Hawk. It was on top of our roof. I just wanted to see it so I could tell the kids at school….”
Your mom opened her mouth to reply, then changed her mind. Her eyes welled up, and she put her arm around you. She didn’t tell you that she had gone to see your teacher after school while you were playing basketball at the playground. And that Mrs. Avalon had shared her concern about you making up stories that couldn’t possibly be true. It had been going on ever since your nonna died and your papà up and left your family. Your mother didn’t tell you that she had burst into tears and revealed to Mrs. Avalon that you were taking it hard, wetting the bed every second night and waking up screaming. You were having dreams of wild animals chasing you, of birds swooping down to attack you. She didn’t mention that your teacher suggested she take you to a special doctor before you totally disengaged from reality.
No, she just tucked the covers snugly around you and started to sing your favourite lullabies. She always began with the one Nonna had taught her when you were born:
A far la guardia, presso la culla, il micio e il fido, ti lascerò
Al mio ritorno, ad una ad una, tre belle favole ti canter
Ninna, nanna, dormi, tesor. Ninna nanna, qui, sul mio cuor.
You were too old for lullabies, really, but they seemed to calm you, and before the dragon lullaby was done, your eyes had ceased blinking and you were fast asleep.
Your mom made herself some chamomile tea and finally went to bed, after deciding to make a doctor’s appointment in the morning. But you had a whole night to go through still. And you had just arrived at the door of the dragon… a dragon with the head of the Hawk and black wings that were about to wrap around you… like Nonna’s shawl….